What is a reverse diet and when should you do one?

Reverse Dieting
Table of contents:

What's a reverse diet?

Benefits of reverse dieting

Who should reverse diet?

Realistic expectations on a reverse diet

The wrap-up on reverse diets

Are you investing in your long-term metabolic health?

People tend to lose weight with short-term success in mind. They slash calories now but ignore the diet after the diet, the true key to long-term weight loss.

As a result, plenty of people lose weight…and plenty of people gain it back.

You can’t just temporarily cut calories to lose weight long-term. If you simply return to your old diet and habits, you’ll regain all that lost weight - and sometimes more. To keep the weight off, you need to:

  • Sustain your new maintenance calories, which are often lower than before
  • Continue the habits and behaviors that made you successful with weight loss in the first place

When you cut calories, your body adapts to prevent further weight loss - so what was once a calorie deficit becomes your new maintenance. Then, to continue to lose weight, you have to reduce your calorie intake even more. This “metabolic adaptation” is particularly strong when you diet too severely or too long. In which case, your new maintenance may be too low to realistically sustain. Luckily, there’s a way out.

Reverse dieting provides an alternative, allowing you to increase your calories over time while minimizing fat gain. It’s an investment in your metabolism that helps fix the damage of chronic calorie restriction.

Read on to learn the ropes of reverse dieting and see if a reverse diet is right for you!

What’s a reverse diet?

Reverse dieting incrementally increases your calorie intake to speed up your metabolism gradually.

When you reverse diet, your body repeatedly adapts to a small calorie surplus, which ultimately becomes your new maintenance calories. These adaptations essentially reverse those that occur during a calorie deficit.

Though this approach sounds similar to a conservative gaining (or “bulking”) phase, the two differ in their goals. Specifically, a gaining phase aims to increase body weight, while a reverse diet aims to increase calorie intake with minimal weight gain. Thus, the size of your calorie surplus during a reverse diet depends on how much weight gain you’re willing to tolerate.

Benefits of reverse dieting

Compared to weight loss, gain, and maintenance phases, reverse dieting may seem the least intuitive. However, following a reverse diet provides a variety of unique advantages that support a healthy body composition and metabolism.

1. Harnessing metabolic adaptations to increased calorie intake

Your body adapts to changes in energy balance even when your weight stays stable: simply increasing your calorie intake can cause an increase in energy expenditure. These adaptations extend to all aspects of total daily energy expenditure (TDEE)...

  • Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) increases, which most significantly contributes to higher TDEE during a calorie surplus(1). NEAT includes unplanned, non-exercise-related movements, like fidgeting, doing housework, and walking. With a slightly higher calorie intake, you’ll likely feel better and have more motivation to move around.
  • Exercise activity thermogenesis (EAT) may also increase, as eating more can fuel better workout performance and recovery - so you can exercise harder and longer.
  • Lastly, resting metabolic rate (RMR) rises with increased calorie intake, even without muscle or fat gain. This metabolic boost is most noticeable when returning to maintenance after a deficit(2) and reflects higher levels of hormones, such as thyroid hormone (T3/T4), leptin, and testosterone(3, 4, 5, 6).

Slowly upping your calories on a reverse diet gives your body sufficient time to “catch up” using these advantageous metabolic adaptations. As a result, you can gradually eat more without spiking the scale.

2. Leaving time for muscle growth

The small, controlled calorie surplus used during a reverse diet also supports muscle growth, such that any weight that occurs likely reflects muscle rather than fat. Muscle growth generally requires more effort and time to occur(7), unlike fat storage, which can happen much faster. Accordingly, a slow progression in calorie intake will better match the speed of muscle growth compared to a dramatic binge.

After an extended weight loss phase, you’ve typically lost fat as well as some muscle - and regaining that muscle will not only enhance your physique but also boost your metabolism. Lean body mass accounts for most of your resting metabolic rate(8), as muscle burns more calories at rest than fat.

Moreover, regaining lean mass lost during dieting can reduce hunger signals that spur overeating. Following calorie restriction and weight loss, heightened hunger signals can drive such extreme overeating that some ex-dieters regain more weight and fat than they lost! This “fat overshooting” may result from a lower lean body mass that continues to stoke appetite(9).

Combining a reverse diet with a well-designed resistance training program can help you regain the muscle needed to normalize hunger signals and further increase your metabolism. Those with a higher tolerated rate of weight gain (i.e., higher calorie surplus) should particularly prioritize resistance training to support muscle growth over fat storage.

3. Teaching discipline outside of a deficit

It’s easy to succumb to temptation and lose control after a calorie deficit - especially if you’ve followed a restrictive diet or dieted for far too long(10). Some people naturally associate dieting with discipline and drop their discipline when their diet ends. Combined with a stronger appetite, this loss of control is a recipe for disaster, leading to binging and fat regain.

Reverse dieting can prevent this dramatic shift in mindset by reinforcing discipline outside of calorie restriction: eating more is no longer a license to overconsume. In order to successfully follow a reverse diet, you’ll need to pay attention to detail to consistently create a slight calorie surplus. This consistency can help hone your mental muscle and dissociate discipline from restriction, saving you from an endless cycle of yo-yo dieting and weight loss failures.

However, some individuals may find the extreme precision needed for a conservative reverse to be too stressful - in which case, they can opt for a reverse diet with a larger calorie surplus.

4. Minimizing fat gain

The purpose of reverse dieting is to minimize fat gain while increasing energy intake, a goal most applicable to those who just finished a weight loss phase. This same population is, unfortunately, at the greatest risk for fat gain.

Weight loss primes the body for fat regain as a protective mechanism to prevent starvation. And although some fat regain is often necessary for hormonal health in extremely lean individuals (i.e., physique competitors), the average person would benefit from warding off the weight gain.

What’s more, the rapid fat regain sometimes seen post-diet can make future weight loss even harder, as it can increase both the size and number of fat cells(11, 12). And once your body grows new fat cells, it can’t eliminate them - it can only make them smaller.

Who should reverse diet?

Reverse dieting is suitable for a wide array of individuals aiming to enhance their metabolism. Specifically, you may want to follow a reverse diet if…

  • You’re wrapping up a weight loss phase with unsustainably low maintenance calories.
  • If you’ve dieted for too long or too hard, you’ve likely attained your goal at the expense of your metabolic health. A reverse diet will help you restore your metabolism without too much fat gain.
  • If you’ve reached an extremely low body fat percentage (as in contest prep), consider initially following a less conservative reverse diet until you reach a body fat level that recovers your hormonal health. Otherwise, choose a more conservative reverse diet to best avoid fat gain.
  • You have a slow metabolism due to a history of chronic or yo-yo dieting.
  • Cycles of dieting take their toll on your metabolism - especially when you regain more fat than muscle. If you’re unhappy with your current fat level, opt for a more conservative reverse diet. But if you don’t mind a little extra weight, a less conservative approach works equally well.
  • You’re stuck at a weight loss plateau and struggling to limit your calorie intake. If your metabolism has dipped too low during your diet, consider a more conservative reverse diet to bring it up without spoiling your weight loss goals.
  • You want to maximize your metabolism. Perhaps you simply want to be able to eat more, perform better in your workouts, or make future dieting easier. In whatever case, following a reverse diet can help you achieve that metabolic boost.

Realistic expectations on a reverse diet

1. Don’t expect weight loss: minor weight gain is normal

Reverse dieting is not a weight loss diet, but rather a way to improve your metabolism with minimal weight gain. And because you’re eating in a small calorie surplus, you will likely experience a slight increase in weight, however small.

If you see your weight consistently dropping during a reverse diet, you aren’t actually in a calorie surplus (and aren’t adhering to the reverse diet protocol). Such a scenario is possible if…

  1. You’ve been more accurate with your food tracking than before, so your estimated surplus is, in reality, a deficit.
  2. Your metabolism is increasing faster than expected, so you need to bump up your calories even more.

In addition, weight fluctuations don’t always indicate mass gain. You may notice your weight increase when…

  • You increase your carbohydrate intake
  • You increase your sodium intake
  • You exercise more intensely than usual
  • You eat foods that cause bloating

2. Be patient. It’s not a quick fix

Your metabolism slowed down gradually, so you can’t correct it overnight. Reverse dieting is neither a quick nor easy fix: it requires patience, adherence, and consistency. A reverse diet works because of the slow, progressive increase in calories. Adaptation takes time, and an abrupt jump in calorie intake may cause rapid fat regain.

3. Your maintenance calories won’t always increase

There are significant individual differences in metabolism and metabolic adaptations. In fact, research identifies two different phenotypes: the “thrifty phenotype” has stronger metabolic adaptations resisting weight loss, whereas the “spendthrift phenotype” has stronger metabolic adaptations resisting weight gain (13, 14). In addition, your prior dieting experience and current metabolic rate will also influence the extent to which you can boost your maintenance calories. You can’t increase your metabolism indefinitely and ultimately can’t control your body’s response.

4. It might not be for you

Not everyone needs to do a reverse diet. Reverse dieting is best suited for individuals who want to increase their metabolism without gaining much weight. If you have different goals, you may prefer something other than a reverse diet.

For example…

  • If you’ve finished a fat loss phase and are happy with your current maintenance calories, you can follow a maintenance phase instead of a reverse diet.
  • If you want to maximize muscle building and don’t mind a little fat gain, you’re better off entering a weight gain phase.
  • If you have a reasonably high metabolism and want to shed some fat, consider starting a weight loss phase.

The wrap-up on reverse diets

A healthy metabolism makes for a healthier, happier, and easier life - even after weight loss. If you’ve subjected yourself to short-sighted fat loss strategies, you might find your metabolism moving at snail speed. Fortunately, you don’t have to be stuck with a slow metabolism forever.

Reverse dieting helps heal the damages done by dieting, harnessing metabolic adaptations that accompany a small calorie surplus. Following a reverse diet can correct your metabolism without unnecessary weight gain: you can maintain your post-diet body while bolstering your post-diet metabolism.

Though reverse dieting isn’t a magic pill, it’s the best option for someone seeking a speedier metabolism. And, in the end, the time and effort you invest will pay off.  

Don’t sacrifice long-term results for short-term success. And don’t prioritize what you want right now over what you want most. The delayed rewards of reverse dieting are well worth the patience and work.

  1. Vanltallie T. B. (2001). Resistance to weight gain during overfeeding: a NEAT explanation. Nutrition reviews, 59(2), 48–51. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1753-4887.2001.tb06975.x
  2. Martins, C., Roekenes, J., Salamati, S., Gower, B. A., & Hunter, G. R. (2020). Metabolic adaptation is an illusion, only present when participants are in negative energy balance. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 112(5), 1212–1218. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqaa220
  3. Trexler, E. T., Smith-Ryan, A. E., & Norton, L. E. (2014). Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 11(1), 7. https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-11-7
  4. Kim, B. (2008). Thyroid Hormone as a Determinant of Energy Expenditure and the Basal Metabolic Rate. Thyroid, 18(2), 141-144. doi:10.1089/thy.2007.0266
  5. Margetic, S., Gazzola, C., Pegg, G., & Hill, R. (2002). Leptin: a review of its peripheral actions and interactions. International Journal of Obesity Related Metabolic Disorders. doi:10.1038/sj.ijo.0802142
  6. Strauss, R. H., Lanese, R. R., & Malarkey, W. B. (1985). Weight loss in amateur wrestlers and its effect on serum testosterone levels. JAMA, 254(23), 3337–3338.
  7. Damas, F., Libardi, C. A., & Ugrinowitsch, C. (2018). The development of skeletal muscle hypertrophy through resistance training: the role of muscle damage and muscle protein synthesis. European journal of applied physiology, 118(3), 485–500. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-017-3792-9
  8. Ravussin, E., Burnand, B., Schutz, Y., & Jéquier, E. (1982). Twenty-four-hour energy expenditure and resting metabolic rate in obese, moderately obese, and control subjects. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 35(3), 566–573. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/35.3.566
  9. Dulloo, A. G., Jacquet, J., & Girardier, L. (1997). Poststarvation hyperphagia and body fat overshooting in humans: a role for feedback signals from lean and fat tissues. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 65(3), 717-723.
  10. Polivy, J., & Herman, C. P. (1985). Dieting and binging. A causal analysis. The American psychologist, 40(2), 193–201. https://doi.org/10.1037//0003-066x.40.2.193
  11. Jackman, M. R., Steig, A., Higgins, J. A., Johnson, G. C., Fleming-Elder, B. K., Bessesen, D. H., & MacLean, P. S. (2008). Weight regain after sustained weight reduction is accompanied by suppressed oxidation of dietary fat and adipocyte hyperplasia. American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 294(4), R1117-R1129.
  12. Maclean, P. S., Bergouignan, A., Cornier, M. A., & Jackman, M. R. (2011). Biology's response to dieting: the impetus for weight regain. American journal of physiology. Regulatory, integrative and comparative physiology, 301(3), R581–R600. https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpregu.00755.2010
  13. Reinhardt, M., Thearle, M. S., Ibrahim, M., Hohenadel, M. G., Bogardus, C., Krakoff, J., & Votruba, S. B. (2015). A human thrifty phenotype associated with less weight loss during caloric restriction. Diabetes, 64(8), 2859-2867.
  14. Hollstein, T., Basolo, A., Ando, T., Krakoff, J., & Piaggi, P. (2021). Reduced adaptive thermogenesis during acute protein-imbalanced overfeeding is a metabolic hallmark of the human thrifty phenotype. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 114(4), 1396–1407. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqab209
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